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South Asian Women Writers To Watch Out For

25th May 2015

South Asian Women Writers To Watch Out For
Image: Creative Commons
For many, writing has been a form of catharsis. In South Asia, where women’s rights have been suppressed in some areas, many female writers have taken the act of writing to talk about things that matter: from identity politics to displacement, from personal successes to cultural failures. Dhanya Nair presents six writers who have shaped South Asian literature.

Kiran Desai (above):

Daughter of ace novelist Anita Desai, Kiran Desai is best known for her workThe Inheritance of Lossone of the most popular books to come from South Asian literature. Desai, brought up in India before moving to UK and then the US, is known to weave stories that are both panoramic and intimate.

She vividly brings out the places, the people, the culture, and the struggles of daily life whether it is in the Himalayas, Cambridge or New York. Desai writes with wit, perception, and a poignancy that refuses to simmer down.

Desai has won awards like Betty Trask Award, Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for her work.

Anita Desai:

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Long before South Asian literature became a force to be reckoned with, before Salman Rushdies Midnight Children, before Anglo-Indian writing, and long before the literary scene took off in the sub-continent, there was Anita Desai.

Her tryst with writing began in the 1950s when she would diligently send her manuscripts to English publishers (as Indian-English literature in India was unheard of). In that respect, she can be considered as the mother of contemporary South Asian literature.

Desais writing moves slowly and mostly deals with identity, language and loss. Her last bookThe Artist of Disappearance (2011)shows her candour as a writer. Three novellas make up this book. Preservation, change, disappointment, retreat and regret are the main themes. It is both deeply personal and subtly piercing.

Durrani exposes gender violence and strict religious dogma of Pakistani society through her work. A recluse, she devotes her time these days for emancipation of Pakistani women.

Arundhati Roy:

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Prolific essayist, human rights activist and winner of Man Booker Prize (1997), Arundhati Roy, is best known for her seminal work: The God of Small Things.

The semi-autobiographical book, is set in a southern Indian village called Aymanam, where Roy spent her childhood. The influence of these early years pervades this book both structurally and thematically.

One tragedy follows another and Roy weaves a poignant story about loss of innocence  through these incidents. She etches out each character beautifully, giving importance to their motivations, insecurities and unfulfilled dreams.

The melancholia is accompanied with a well-crafted prose; the result is you get a book that just cannot be put down in a hurry.

Jhumpa Lahiri:

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Indian origin, London born and Rhode Island bred, Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winner who made her mark with her debut workInterpreter of Maladiesa collection of nine short stories. Her second bookThe Namesake was turned into a film by Mira Nair while her latest work The Lowland (2013) was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize.

Migration, assimilation, identity and displacement are some of the major themes she explores through her work. Lahiri delves into her characterssouls and brings out their sense of fear, achievement, loss and expatriation in a haunting manner.

Yet, her work connects with readers of all backgrounds because perhaps most of us have the same emotional needs despite the cultural and geographical differences. 

Tehmina Durrani:

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Pakistan writer Tehmina Durrani is an outspoken female rights activist who shot to fame after her first autobiographical bookMy Feudal Lord. Published in 1991, this is her gut-wrenching tale of an abusive marriage with a powerful man from Pakistans polity.

Durrani exposes gender violence and strict religious dogma of Pakistani society through her work. A recluse, she devotes her time these days for emancipation of Pakistani women. Her last book, Blasphemy, exposes the moral degradation of Muslim clergies and questions their religious facade which puts them in a superior position.

Durrani consistently challenges religious and cultural practices that dehumanise women. Often she has paid a price for this. Her family ostracised her for 13 years after the release of her first book. Yet, Durrani continues her work in the face of a volatile society.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed:

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A British Indian Muslim writer, Janmohamed is better known for her blog, Spirit 21. Roughly a decade old, her blog provides unique perspective on the life of British Muslim women. Considered as one of the UKs 100 most influential Muslim women, Janmohamed explores a range of issues in her blog, from the politics around the veil to complexities faced by Muslims in the West.

Her book, Love in a Headscarf, is a cross between chic-lit and memoir. The success of her blog prompted her to pen the book. It is the tale of her arranged marriage. In the West, arranged marriage is seen as a form of force and subservience but her story gives it a fresh perspective.

Love stories are universal stories and Janmohamed serves hers with a dash of thought-provoking humour.


Dhanya Nair is a lifestyle and cultural blogger/editor. She has a blog, Voices in My Head and tweets @DhanyaNsankar.